New COVID-19 cases in the US rise to the highest level ever

A person receives their results of a COVID-19 test through a window on December 29, as the Omicron variant continues to spread in Indianapolis, Ind., In the United States.CHENEY ORR / Reuters

More than a year after the vaccine was rolled out, new cases of COVID-19 in the US have risen to their highest level ever by over 265,000 a day on average, an increase mainly driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

New cases a day have more than doubled in the last two weeks, overshadowing the old mark of 250,000, set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The rapidly spreading mutant version of the virus has cast a disappointment over Christmas and New Year, forcing communities to turn down or cancel their festivities just weeks after it looked like Americans were enjoying an almost normal holiday season. Thousands of flights have been canceled due to staff shortages caused by the virus.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. expert on infectious diseases, said Wednesday that there is no need to cancel small home gatherings among vaccinated and boosted family and friends.

But “if your plans are to go to a 40- to 50-person New Year’s party with all the bells and whistles and all the hugs and kisses and wish each other a happy new year, I would highly recommend that we do not do it this year. That,” he said.

The threat from Omicron and the desire to spend the holidays with friends and loved ones have prompted many Americans to be tested for COVID-19.

Aravindh Shankar, 24, flew to San Jose, California, for Christmas from West Lafayette, Ind., To be with family. Although he was feeling well, he decided to be tested on Wednesday just to play it safe as he had been on a plane.

He and his family spent almost an entire day searching for a test appointment for him before going to a spot in a parking lot next to San Jose airport.

“It was actually surprisingly hard,” Shankar said of trying to find a test. “Some people definitely have it harder.”

The picture is bleak elsewhere around the world, especially in Europe, and World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says he is concerned that Omicron is combining with the Delta variant to produce a “tsunami” of cases. That, he said, will put “enormous pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems on the brink of collapse.”

The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 runs at about 60,000, or about half the number seen in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

While hospitalizations sometimes lag behind cases, hospital numbers can reflect both the protection the vaccine provides and the possibility that Omicron does not make people as ill as previous versions.

COVID-19 deaths in the United States have risen over the past two weeks from an average of 1,200 a day to about 1,500.

Public health experts will closely monitor the numbers in the coming week for indications of the vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing serious illness, keeping people out of hospital and relieving the burden of exhausted health professionals, said Bob Bednarczyk, professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University.

CDC data already suggest that the unvaccinated are admitted much higher than those who have been vaccinated, although the effectiveness of the shots decreases over time, he said.

“If we are able to cope with this increase with hopefully minimal disruption to the overall health system, it is a place where vaccines really show their worth,” Bednarczyk said.

It is highly unlikely that the number of admissions will ever rise to their previous peak, said Amesh Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at Bloomberg School of Public Health. Vaccines and treatments developed since last year have made it easier to slow the spread of the virus and minimize serious effects among people with breakthrough infections.

“It will take some time for people to be set on the fact that cases do not matter in the same way as they did in the past,” Adalja said. “We have a lot of defenses against it.”

But even with fewer people hospitalized compared to previous increases, the virus could wreak havoc on hospitals and healthcare professionals, he added.

“In a way, these admissions are worse because they can all be prevented,” he said.

Several European countries, including France, Greece, the UK and Spain, also reported record highs this week, leading to a ban on music at New Year’s parties in Greece and a renewed push to encourage vaccination by the French authorities.

The WHO reported that new COVID-19 cases worldwide rose 11 percent last week from the week before, with nearly 4.99 million recorded 20-26. December. But the UN health agency also noted a drop in cases in South Africa, where Omicron was first discovered just over a month ago.

On December 27, the US health authorities shortened the recommended time for isolation for asymptomatic Americans with COVID-19 to five days from the previous guidance of 10. Tamara Lindstrom reports.


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